- High commissioner says Brexit will lead to greater engagement.
The UK is SA’s largest export market for agricultural products and an important destination for manufactured goods and other value-added exports. As a former colonial power, the UK remains heavily invested economically and socially in SA and contributes to foreign direct investment and other key areas such as education, science and institution building.
Nigel Casey was recently appointed UK high commissioner to SA and answered questions on Brexit, Bell Pottinger, and SA-UK relations.
Bronwyn Nortje (BN): What is the relationship between SA and the UK in numbers?
Nigel Casey (NC): According to the Reserve Bank, 36% of foreign direct investment stock comes from the UK. The value of annual two-way trade between UK and SA is £10bn. Around 400,000 Brits come to SA every year on holiday, supporting the valuable tourism sector.
BN: The UK is clearly committed to making Brexit work, so what changes can we expect as it renegotiates its relationship with SA outside of the EU?
NC: I think Brexit will act as a spur for the UK to reinvest in its relationship with SA. It has always been an important relationship for us, but I think we haven’t invested as much as we might have done in recent years. We now have every motivation to put that right, so I fully expect us to be spending more time engaging SA across the board.
In terms of trade relations, the immediate challenge is to prevent any disruption, which is why we are focusing on replicating the existing Southern African Development Community-EU Economic Partnership Agreement to be a UK-only agreement once we have left the EU. I think there is a real potential upside for the SA and UK Southern Africa economic relationship because we can better tailor our trade agreements to better suit our partnerships and economic interests.
BN: Does the fact that the South African government is increasingly looking east for foreign support affect that relationship at all?
NC: No, it’s not a concern. We are also investing a lot of energy and effort in building our relationships with countries like China and India, both bilaterally and in terms of joint work and investing as well as supporting government in Africa, so this is very much in line with what we are doing. We don’t have any difficulty with the idea that SA is shifting its investment efforts in the same direction.
"I fully expect us to be spending more time and energy engaging sa across the board."
BN: SA recently entered a recession and is at risk of being downgraded again. What are you telling British investors about SA as an investment destination and what sectors of the economy do you see as most attractive to investors?
NC: Historically, the UK has been heavily invested into SA across a wide range of sectors – everything from sugar to services – and we can expect it to remain that way. In the future, though, we could expect even more of an emphasis on the services sector, given that that is where our economy is strongest and I think SA’s is too.
Within that, there are some interesting areas of new growth, for example in fintech and educationtech as well as significant opportunities in the blue economy — the oceans economy — where SA could be a global leader. Initiatives such as Operation Phakisa are ahead of many others in delivering results-driven economic growth and we should be a natural partner in that regard.
BN: What private sector initiatives is the high commission involved in to promote growth and strengthen trade between the two countries?
NC: We work very closely with the British Chamber of Commerce in Southern Africa, which has chapters in Johannesburg and Cape Town. I would urge anybody who is not already a member to get in touch and think about joining. It’s open to South Africans as well as British companies.
We also have some specific regional initiatives. For example, there is a tie-up between the KwaZulu-Natal Chamber of Commerce and the North East Chamber of Commerce in Newcastle in the UK which is yielding encouraging results. We also recently had a visit from Wesgro, the trade and investment agency of the Western Cape, which was very successful.
BN: The term "radical economic transformation: has been bandied about a lot. Can the UK play a role in SA achieving it?
NC: British companies are constantly in the business of delivering transformation in SA and there are many different ways British investors are delivering transformation in practice. It could be in training and promoting their staff, spreading ownership and pushing apprenticeship schemes. What they would like from the government is some flexibility on the way this contribution is recognised.
BN: South Africa House takes pride of place on Trafalgar Square. If they were to build it today, it would probably be in Croydon. Widespread corruption, a shrinking economy and an appalling foreign policy record at the UN is making it more and more difficult for SA to remain relevant on the international stage. Does SA really matter anymore?
NC: Where SA carries weight and influence in the rest of the world is really something for SA to define. When I was last in SA 25 years ago, the world was so focused on it because you had the world’s biggest and most institutionalised system of race discrimination ever known.
SA has been influential in shaping the global debate in the run-up to the Paris agreement on climate change, and we’ve worked very successfully with SA on the challenge of antimicrobial resistance, which is a big issue for a country with a huge burden of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Whatever it is that the South African government chooses, I think SA will be positively received and welcomed in a leadership role wherever that might be.
BN: Institutional strength is a key factor in the maintenance of a democratic state, but in recent months, SA’s institutions have come under fire from some of the very people who are meant to protect them. Is there any role Britain can play in supporting South African institutions?
NC: We certainly recognise that institutions are absolutely critical to SA’s future as indeed they are in our country, so we have really good partnerships with leading institutions. For example, our Department for International Development is in partnership with the Treasury in helping to strengthen and develop financial management at all levels of government. We also work with other government departments and research
institutions and are very much up for that sort of institutional level partnership.
BN: The actions of London public relations firm Bell Pottinger to undermine democracy and to create racial strife in SA are appalling. Can you promise South Africans that their conduct will be brought to the attention of the relevant prosecuting authorities in the UK if there is sufficient evidence?
NC: South Africans can rest assured that the issues you are referring to have received very wide attention in the UK in recent weeks and have been subjected to a high degree of scrutiny by the industry and other bodies.